MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Robin Williams' character originally died at the end of “Dead Poets Society.”
When Robin Williams tragically passed away last year, tributes to the actor and comedian spread wide across the Internet. Many made reference to his Oscar-nominated performance as John Keating in the 1989 drama “Dead Poets Society,” about an English teacher who inspired students at conservative boarding school in the late 1950s. At the end of the film, Keating's students protest his firing by standing on their desks and reciting "O Captain! My Captain!," the opening words from Walt Whitman’s 1865 poem of the same name, written in response to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Fans of Williams shared photos of themselves on social media standing on desks, accompanied by the hashtags #MyCaptain and #OCaptainMyCaptain. “The Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon even stood on his desk in salute to Williams.
It was a touching way for fans to honor the actor, but amazingly enough, if the original version of “Dead Poets Society” had come about, it would have been a particularly on-point tribute, as Keating was set to die at the end!
Tom Schulman’s first screenplay to be made into a motion picture,“Dead Poets Society” ultimately won the writer an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. He based the movie partially upon three men, the most notable being Jim Pickering, a professor Schulman had in the late 1960s at Montgomery Bell Academy (a year before Pickering went to graduate school). Pickering often describes himself as being far less focused than Williams' character, as Keating's seemingly unfocused teaching style was designed to break his students free from their conformity. Pickering has noted his style was not nearly as sensible. He told The New York Times in 1992, "If I thought that I really influenced the lives of students, I might stop teaching. I am not a big enough person for such responsibility."
Schulman was also influenced by a lecture by Broadway director Harold Clurman. Finally, Schulman saw a lot of Keating in his own father, who was a poetry lover. He recalled in the Jurgen Wolff/Kerry Cox book “Top Secrets: Screenwriting” that his father was "always quoting poetry to me, little kernels of wisdom." That certainly sounds like Keating's famous line to his students, "Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary."
In Schulman's original vision of the screenplay focused more on Keating character than his students. The climax of the film arrives when one of the students, Neil (Robert Sean Leonard), kills himself after his father moves to pull him from school to send him to a military academy to prevent him from pursuing his dream of acting. The school decides to blame the suicide on Keating and the unauthorized club the "Dead Poets Society" that gives the film its name. The students go along with the railroading of Keating to prevent themselves from being expelled for their participation in the group -- even Todd (Ethan Hawke), who was close to Keating. After their teacher’s dismissal, however, Todd and his friends protest his dismissal by standing on their desks (a reference to when Keating would stand on his own desk while teaching), despite threats of expulsion.
Originally, however, the climax was intended to be when Keating succumbs to leukemia, from which he would have suffered throughout the film. So “Dead Poets Society” would have been more about Keating's struggles with the disease than anything. Director Peter Weir argued with Schulman that this was an unnecessary element in the script. As Weir told him (and as Schulman then related in “Top Secrets: Screenwriting”), "a dying general leading his men into battle isn't a very courageous man -- after all, he has nothing to lose." In other words, if Keating knows he’s dying, it takes away from his willingness to challenge the establishment through his teaching. It reduces the stakes in a very real way.
Schulman agreed with Weir, and so it was changed from Keating's death inspiring his students to Neil's death driving them to rebel after their teacher takes the fall for Neil's suicide. The result made Keating a braver rebel and also gave the students a more powerful reason to stand up for him. It’s one thing to honor a dying teacher; it’s something else to honor a teacher you allowed to take the fall for the death of a classmate. In addition, it takes the "O Captain! My Captain!" line from being a bit too on point in the script.
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